A Cursory Examination of Venus and Adonis
In Venus and Adonis Shakespeare deviates from his established literary art form in favor of one that revisits a known story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. By expanding the story, he is able to showcase his craft as a writer and mold a new story from the old. Shakespeare uses masterful poetry to retell the story of Venus and Adonis and engage with some of his favorite themes in a fresh light.
Playing with gender roles is almost a pastime for Shakespeare. While many plays
explore gender identity and roles within the realm of one pretending to be another, Venus and Adonis instead challenges stereotypes. The heightened premise of Venus pursuing Adonis sets the stage for the poem as a whole. Shakespeare does not depict a lovesick goddess pursuing her object of passion. Instead, he depicts a powerful lovesick goddess pursuing her object of passion with all her art. Flipping the typical goddess love story on its head, Venus is “so enraged, desire doth lend her force/Courageously to pluck [Adonis] from his horse” (line 29-30). Venus is not the victim of a capture but rather the force controlling the situation. She woos as she has been wooed (line 97) and “govern[s] him in strength” (line 42), persisting in persuasion until he “now no more resisteth,/While she takes all she can” (line 563-
564). Despite her clear dominance Venus does not succeed until almost halfway through the poem. For much of Venus’ pursuit Adonis takes on the role typically ascribed to females. He “blushe[s] and pout[s] in a dull disdain […] red for shame, but frosty in desire” (line 33-36), but unlike women in his situation he is “forced to content, but never to obey” (line 61). There remains a degree of consent Adonis must give though Venus assail him. Venus “entreats, and prettily entreats” (line 73) but Adonis “still is […] sullen, still he lours and frets/’Twixt crimson shame and anger ashy-pale” (line 75-76). Unable to win Adonis over with sensuality alone, Venus turns to artful words and logic. She appeals to Adonis’ youth, her beauty, and that he “wast begot; to get it is [his] duty” (line 168). Her lack of success leads her to attack his manliness and to admonish his cold heart until he tries to flee (line 258). It is not until after his horse runs away and he kills Venus with his look (line 463) that Adonis softens, relenting to the promise of a kiss in exchange for a goodbye (line 535-537) that Venus promptly grabs. For all Venus’ control and power as a goddess, for all the strength of her passion, she is unable to secure Adonis without consent. In not responding to Venus’ advances the way she wants him to Adonis regains some of the power he is inherently without. It becomes a bargaining chip he can use to flee. Having been true to his word to give Venus a kiss, Adonis grows bolder in refusing her and “tells her no, tomorrow he intends/To hunt the boar with certain of his friends” (line 587-588), finally breaking free from her embrace (line 811). Once Adonis leaves her presence Venus appears in a more traditionally female role, experiencing “variable passions [that] throng her constant woe […] all entertained, each passion labours so/That every present sorrow seemeth chief,/But none is best. Then join they all together,/Like many clouds consulting for foul weather” (line 967-972). Her grief consumes her, anxiety at the outcome of his hunt turned to sorrow when she discovers Adonis dead. Venus becomes the quintessence of lover’s grief complete with traditionally female stereotypes as “dumbly she passions, franticly she doteth./She thinks he could not die, he is not dead./Her voice is stopped, her joints forget to bow,/Her eyes are mad that they have wept till now” (line 1059-1062) and “Upon his hurt she looks so steadfastly/That her sight, dazzling, makes the wound seem three” (line 1063-1064). Seeing Adonis injured, dead, stuns Venus. Her “sighs are blown away, [her] salt tears gone,/[her] eyes are turned to fire, [her] heart to lead” (line 1071-1072) as she proclaims that she will “die by drops of hot desire” (line 1074). Disbelieving her sight, Venus examines Adonis’ lips (line 1123), hand (line 1124), and eyes (1126-1127) as she whispers in his ears (line 1125). Having done this, Venus arises with a new conviction and prophecy about love. She uses her grief to reclaim her power as a goddess, pausing only to crop the stalk of the flower that grew from her love’s blood and place it in her bosom (line 1166-1175) as a reminder. Both Venus and Adonis demonstrate behaviors and characterizations that challenge stereotypical roles of lovers.
In using Venus’ grief to lead her to a new conviction about love, Shakespeare presents another device he frequently employs in his plays: women prophesying (or cursing) in their grief. These prophecies or curses are not mere spiteful remonstrations; they have significant impact. Women in the history plays notably make such a speech when they learn of a loved one’s death. Venus in Venus and Adonis follows this course as she mourns her love. She professes that that “Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend./It shall be waited on with jealousy,/Find sweet beginning, but unsavory end;/Ne’er settled equally, but high or low,/That all love’s pleasure shall not match his woes” (line 1135-1140). In subsequent lines she expounds upon this, describing the torment love will henceforth enact on its victims. Venus’ prophesy, or curse, is more powerful than those uttered by women in Shakespeare’s other works because she holds real position of power and authority in her world. Venus has a role that enables her to dramatically affect others on a significant scale. In her character Shakespeare combines the poetic grief seen in Romeo and Juliet with someone in power. The verdict that “Sith in his prime death doth my love destroy,/They that love best their loves shall not enjoy” (line 1163-1164) falls like a hammer, forever altering relationships. What is more, Venus issues this prophetic decree and, ”weary of the world, away she hies […] to immure herself, and not be seen” (line 1189, 1194). Venus’ power as a goddess, heightened by her authority as the goddess of love, insures that her curse will be fulfilled regardless of her presence or direct action. She therefore becomes the most powerful female figure capable of enacting a vengeful prophecy on her world, a power strengthened by her grief.
Shakespeare’s rendition of the story of Venus and Adonis highlights stereotypes in relationships and the power of prophecy born of women’s grief. The poetry used to retell the myth lends the story more drama, showcasing the author’s abilities to mold words to emotion and emotion to words in a visceral way. Though Venus and Adonis deviates from Shakespeare’s usual writing, the poem accomplishes discussing many of the same examinations of the people and abstractions that compose life.